Monday, 16 May 2005

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"Woe Unto Ye Beetles of South America!" The title of this entry, exclaimed by Charles Darwin upon receiving his father's permission to sail on the Beagle, points to the way in which Janet Browne--in the magesterial two-volume biography floating somewhere to the right of these words--believes Darwin anthropomorphized everything. The sly but unsubtle hyperbole of "Woe unto ye beetles of South America!" is typical of the way Darwin interacted with the natural world; namely, as if it could understand him and, more tellingly, as if he assumed it could answer back. According to Browne, it spoke through the mountains of evidence in which Darwin would, after decades of meticulous research, begin to see the contours of his theory of natural selection. But what Browne really wants to hammer home is that while, for some people, the idea that "evidence speaks" is little more than inflated modesty, for Darwin it organized his every observation for the majority of his life. For example, Browne writes Flowers invited him to bury his head in their petals, guinea-pigs reproached him for finding them tasty. It was a shame to kill armadillos when they were "so quiet." Sometimes the rocks themselves were like people, hiding their secrets or teasing him with gnomic clues. Thereafter, he gave human attributes to almost every species he met, including flatworms and beetles: a trait that blurred the dividing line between man and beast. (216) You can see where this claim's headed: blurring "the dividing line between man and beast" allowed him to apply Malthus' arguments on the populations of man to animals or to impute the instinctive behaviors of animals to man. One that wall fell, the door had opened and in walked the theory of natural selection. (But not through the door, what with the wall having already fallen there would've been no need. Or door. But as the British are liable to be, well, British under any and all circumstances, the theory of natural selection probably walked in approximately where the door had been, so that it might be greeted in the foyer.) But as compelling and intelligent as Browne's book has been--I'm a little more than two-thirds of the way through the first volume, sounding the waters around the Galapagos Island of Indefatigable, that is, east of Duncan, south of James, and north of Charles, Barrington and Chatham--I'm unsatisfied with this telegraphed epiphanic logic. I know from Darwin's account that he'll soon be tormenting large iguanas: I watched one for a long time, till half its body was buried; I then walked up and pulled it by the tail, at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, much as to say, What made you pull my tail? Browne's claim of anthropomorphism is inadequate. It's not that Darwin believes the entire world is human, no, he believes the entire world is British. His treatment of the metaphorical subjects of the Queen is therefore doubly deplorable. Of tormenting another iguana,...

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